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Wounds

In response to:

Life and Death in Slavery from the January 30, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Until now, I never understood why authors sometimes respond churlishly to positive reviews of their books. I am, of course, gratified that David Brion Davis found my book, Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), “excellent” and “admirably researched,” among the other nice things that he has to say [“Life and Death in Slavery,” NYR, January 30]. There are, however, several points in the essay that I want to address here. Like Davis, I wish that it was possible to find out what happened to the ex-slaves who escaped to Canada after the Christiana Riot. Since there are no written records bearing on their experience and since their families have passed down no oral traditions concerning their fate, we will just have to hope that a novelist, perhaps one with the prodigious talents of Gore Vidal or Toni Morrison, will fill us in on what happened next.

Davis observes that I do not discuss sermon literature delivered in response to the Christiana Riot. He is certainly entitled to his preference for sermons over the criminal court records that I used as research sources for my study of racial violence. Throughout his distinguished career, Davis has been more interested in studying the words of dead, white, liberal, intellectual men as a way to discern the meanings of race and race relations in this country, and he is right to discern that I am less interested in the heroes of his story. Still and all, it is a great leap to claim, as Davis does implicitly here and in his classic books on anti-slavery thought, a greater role for Protestant ministers in the history of racial violence than for the working-class whites and blacks who actually shed blood. Such, though, is the prejudice of Davis and so many historians of his generation. They would rather study the printed texts of dead, white, liberal men than comb the archives for evidence about the lives of poor and working-class folks about whom they have little knowledge and less understanding. They identify with the white intellectuals and tell their story over and over again as if it is the most significant or the only story worth telling, and then criticize those of us who do not share their bias.

For the record, though, I am not “warmly sympathetic” to the culture of working-class recreational violence that I describe and am horrified that any reader could draw that conclusion from even a careless reading of my book. In a somewhat quirky and cranky last paragraph, Davis seems to be chastising my “generation” of social historians for our interest in power and for our challenge to those in positions of “social control.” Again, as a member of the academic elite he identifies more with those at the top and credits them with having a monopoly on wisdom, balanced judgment, and good sense. It sounds to me as if Davis is nursing some old wounds, surely now scars, from the sixties and identifies me—is it something I wrote, my photo on the dust-jacket, or just a hunch?—as one of “them,” a computer-keyboard wielding threat to the old regime. I am flattered, but must admit to finding his prejudices hard to take.

Davis’s attempt to ridicule my linkage of violence against animals to a wider culture of violence of which racial assaults are a part is itself evidence of the insensitivity that marks the culture about which I wrote in the book. It also helps to explain why he failed to comprehend my central argument, which links the Christiana Riot to the longer history of working-class violence in the rural North that I explore in the last two chapters—why he sees those chapters as wandering rather than as central to the book’s enterprise. I would like to quote in full, if I may, the passage referring to animals that Davis caricatures in his review:

Perhaps we all can someday acknowledge the continuing injustices that lead to such violence. If one child goes hungry, cannot read, or has no reason to hope, we should not be surprised by what happens next. When we define community narrowly to exclude others unlike ourselves in some sense—if we build better schools, housing, and hospitals for “us”—then we share the burden of violence committed by “them.” If we beat our children “for their own good,” kick our dogs when we have a bad day, or perform experiments on animals because they are genetically similar but somehow different from “us,” we forge additional links in the chain that binds us to our violent past. [Bloody Dawn, p. 186.]

I stand by those views and hope that Davis, a fine scholar of an older school, continues (as we said in the sixties) to “Write on.”

Thomas P. Slaughter
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, New Jersey

David Brion Davis replies:

I’m sorry to say that Professor Slaughter has not only responded “churlishly” to my positive review of his book but has also leapt to wild conclusions about my own beliefs and motives which are totally unjustified by what I said in the review. Invoking the ridiculous PC cliché about “dead, white, liberal men,” Slaughter goes on to misrepresent my own scholarly work and that of “so many historians of [my] generation,” who allegedly identify with “those at the top” and credit them “with having a monopoly on wisdom, balanced judgment, and good sense.” If this were so—a proposition that would surely startle most of my readers and several generations of my graduate and undergraduate students—it’s difficult to explain why I would refer to Slaughter as “a gifted historian” who has, along with Melton A. McLaurin, “reconstructed a sequence of events that goes to the heart of American slavery.”

One criticism I did make, which Slaughter airily dismisses, pertains not to the discussion of white elites but to Slaughter’s failure to tell the reader “what happened to [William] Parker and the other black fugitives in Canada.” Slaughter’s statement that “there are no written records bearing on their experience” is simply not true, as Slaughter himself acknowledges in an endnote buried at the back of his book: “Katz, Resistance, 271–76 and passim, writes about the Parkers’ settlement in Buxton, Canada, and even spoke with some of their descendants…. [Parker,] ‘Freedman’s Story,’ 292–93, is the principal source of information about his family’s life after their escape to Canada, although Katz very creatively located several others not previously identified” (p. 218, note 11).

An examination of Jonathan Ned Katz’s extremely informative Resistance at Christiana (Thomas Y. Crowell, 1974) shows that Katz did indeed track down many relevant sources in Canada, including land sales and lot allocations; legal documents; Eliza Parker’s will; an editorial welcoming Parker to Canada by William Bibb, a fugitive slave and well-known black abolitionist; and a description of what it was like to meet William Parker in Isaac and Mary Ann Shadd’s black-owned newspaper, The Provincial Freeman. Slaughter never mentions that the Parkers and their companions were aided by the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society and found homes at the Elgin settlement and Buxton Mission in southwestern Canada West—perhaps because the Elgin settlement was founded by a “white, liberal, intellectual man” (now dead) named William King, an Irishman who acquired some slaves by marrying a Louisiana planter’s daughter, who then manumitted them and moved them to his Buxton Mission in Canada, where he created a model black agricultural community. According to King, the hero of the Christiana resistance “became a peaceful, sober and industrious settler.”

While one could wish for more and better evidence concerning the fate of the Christiana fugitives, Katz is far more persuasive than Slaughter regarding the authorship and general reliability of William Parker’s narrative, “The Freedman’s Story,” which appeared in 1866 in the Atlantic Monthly and which Slaughter frequently cites before he suddenly loses interest in the Parkers and turns to subjects that have little if any relevance to the Christiana story, to the Fugitive Slave Act, or to the institution of slavery. In giving his readers a picture of what life would have been like for fugitive slaves in Canada, Slaughter might also have drawn on such useful works as C. Peter Ripley, editor, The Black Abolitionist Papers, Vol. II, Canada, 1830–1865 (University of North Carolina Press, 1986); William H. Pease and Jane H. Pease, Black Utopia: Negro Communal Experiments in America (University of Wisconsin Press, 1963); and Jason H. Silverman, Unwelcome Guests: Canada West’s Response to American Fugitive Slaves, 1800–1865 (Associated Faculty Press, 1985).

I find it curious, with respect to sources, that Slaughter regards the choice of sermons and criminal court records as an either/or proposition—and seems to exclude the former because he has a distaste for “the words of dead, white, liberal, intellectual men.” But aside from the fact that sermons were delivered by blacks, women, conservatives, and men of diverse class and educational background (in my review I note that Parker, known himself as “the preacher,” engaged in a heated debate with the Methodist Gorsuch on the biblical justifications for slavery), I would have thought that a responsible history of the Christiana “riot” would include responses from all sectors of society. As I indicated in my review, I was fascinated by Slaughter’s accounts of unrelated riots, crimes, and trials but kept wondering how Hanway’s acquittal “impinged on other fugitive-slave cases” and what the Christiana resistance meant as a model and example to black leaders in the 1850s.

Finally, I’m dumbfounded by the charge that I attempted to ridicule or caricature Slaughter’s “linkage of violence against animals to a wider culture of violence of which racial assaults are a part.” The passage he quotes “in full” speaks for itself. One should note that he makes no distinction between the regulated experiments on animals which provide the necessary basis for much modern medical knowledge and the indefensible testing that is used for cosmetics and other frivolous purposes. With this in mind I accurately stated that Slaughter’s “prose conveys his loathing of all varieties of ‘social control’; he even links the use of animals in medical research with ‘our violent past,’ including the violent past of slaveholders.” While this wording expresses some dismay, it is hardly ridicule or caricature. I clearly disagree with any vision that conflates human slavery with spanking children and using animals to find a cure for cancer and heart disease. But I’m nursing no old wounds “from the sixties,” a decade which brought me many blessings. Moreover, when I wrote my review I had not even seen Slaughter’s dust-jacket photo, since I initially relied on an “Advance Proof.” And when I did in fact behold the photo, I saw no threatening enemy—just a normal and seemingly self-confident professorial face.

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